Tattooing is still largely dominated by male artists, even though surveys show that there could now be more women in the US tattooed than men. In spite of the current landscape, there have been women tattooing in America since the 1900’s. Many of the ladies discovered their love of tattoo during their time in circus sideshows. Most of them were taught by boyfriends or husbands. All of them were badasses. Let's take a moment to learn about the matriarchs of tattooing.
Maud Stevens Wagner Maud’s first gig was circus performing. She was a contortionist and aerialist working with traveling acts. It was at the St. Louis World’s fair in 1904 that she met her Romeo. Well… her Gus. Gus was working as a traveling tattoo artist, and he was into Maud right away. Maud needed more convincing. She agreed to go on a date with Gus if he taught her to tattoo, and thankfully for us, Gus agreed.
If their story wasn’t cool enough, Maud and Gus were two of the last hand-pokers in America. The advent of the electric tattoo machine in 1891 changed the industry forever. Such a revolutionary invention caught on quickly. The Wagner’s traveled the US together working as tattooed attractions and doing hand-poked tattoos. They had one daughter, Lotteva, who did her first tattoo at age 9 and followed in her parents footsteps as an artist. Maud died on January 30, 1961 in Lawton, Oklahoma
Mildred “Millie” Hull - “Queen of the Bowery
Millie began as an exotic dancer in the circus, however, she got so much ink that they started to call her a “Tattooed Lady”. She began learning by scratching on herself, but is always associated with Charles Wagner, who was the artist who did most of her tattoos. The two of them worked together. Millie was a business woman, and owned her own shop in The Bowery, NY. In 1943, she was called “the only female tattoo artist in New York.” Sadly, her promising career was cut short by suicide.
Janet "Rusty" Skuse Born Janet Field, Rusty was once renowned as “The Most Tattooed Woman in Britain.” She was a driver in the Women’s Royal Army Corps, and had her first tattoo aged 17 in 1961. by 1964, she had 62 tattoos. It’s said that she was known to spend more than half her pay on work done by her future husband, Bill Skuse. At one time, she was offered a job as a tattooed attraction by a showman in Glasgow.
Rusty declined the offer, but decided to commit to tattooing. She apprenticed under her now-husband, Bill. For over 21 years, she appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records as Britain's most tattooed woman. She and Bill are some of the founding members of the Bristol Tattoo Club. Rusty died in 2007 after a long battle with kidney disease.
Jacci was born in Flint, Michigan. She knew from a young age that she liked to draw, and chose to study architecture in college. She met her friend Ajit “Ali” Singh, who would become her best friend and partner, while working at an engineering firm. Ali had learned tattooing while living in England a few years prior, and when the two visited New Orleans looking for engineering work with no luck, they decided to open a tattoo shop. This drastic career change made Jacci the first African American Woman to become a tattoo artist.
Aart Accents opened in 1976, and has been in the same location ever since. At the time of this writing, her shop is the oldest continuously operated tattoo shop in the state of Louisiana. Jacci’s work at the time was considered very unique. While most tattoos at the time were simple images, she preferred inking portraits of people and animals. You can learn more about Jacci in the documentary Color Outside the Lines.
Kate “Shanghai Kate” Hellenbrand Attracted early to the tattoo culture, Kate had never considered tattooing herself until 1971 when a friend of hers began to press her to try. By the age of 26, she was being brought into shops to work with artists like Ed Hardy, Jack Rudy, Zeke Owen and Huck Spaulding. Her most famous apprenticeship was with Sailor Jerry.
Kate chose to indulge her love of travel by using tattooing to pay her way. She was the first American Woman to travel and work alone in Europe. Because at the time, tattooing was still illegal in many places, she often set up shop in local Chinatowns, earning her the name “Shanghai Kate.” She has managed and owned many shops over the years, and today is operating “Shanghai Kate’s” in Austin, Texas.